“the library is itself their laboratory and museum”

2 July 2012

From William Coolidge Lane, “The treatment of books according to the amount of their use” (1903):

(emphasis in the original; I have added paragraph breaks for readability)

The question then resolves itself into this: Can a scholar accomplish his work if he has to depend exclusively on bibliographies, the library catalogs, and selected standard works, to learn what material he ought to examine, and is not able to find the books themselves brought together into one or several specific places on the shelves — groups of books, that is to say, which he can run through in searching for his facts or evidence, and can easily recur to from time to time, groups of books in which he is almost sure to find volumes for which he would not have thought of asking, but which would prove to have value; while many others he can dismiss with a glance, though he would have felt obliged to send for them if he found them recorded in the catalog. No catalog record can take the place of a first-hand examination of the book, and it often happens that a moment’s glance at the book will show a trained bookman that there is nothing to his purpose there. The saving of time from this fact alone is an important item in any scholar’s daily work.

From a somewhat careful inquiry in regard to investigations lately in progress in the Harvard College Library, I am convinced that this direct personal access to a classified collection of all the material at hand is of the first importance if profitable work is to be accomplished.

From a description of some of these investigations, it will be seen that in many cases appropriate bibliographies do not exist to which the student may turn for information in regard to his sources. He is going over the ground, that is to say, for the first time, and is making his bibliography as he goes. In other cases the bibliographies which he can use are so extensive and record so much that is out of his reach that an enormous loss of time results simply from sifting out the comparatively small amount of material accessible to him.

The library catalog is of use in some cases. Its use should always supplement search by other means, but often the student’s inquiry is for specific points to be found only by searching through a series of general works, so that he cannot depend upon the catalog for the precise information which he requires.

In fact, the work of a philologist or a historian in searching for new facts or fresh evidence in regard to the subject of his inquiry may be properly compared to that of the naturalist searching in the field for his specimens. The naturalist cannot tell his assistant to go to such and such a stone in such a pasture and bring him from under it a particular beetle. He must himself search from stone to stone on the chance of finding what he wants, and in precisely the same way the literary worker searches from volume to volume for what he seeks. He knows the field in which his facts will be found, as the naturalist knows the habitat of his specimens, but can no more tell in advance in what volume he will find what he wants than the naturalist can foresee under what particular stone he will discover his beetle.

A physicist, to take another example, is studying certain unknown relations in electricity or sound. He refers to books in order to inform himself as to what others have already learned, that he may be guided by their results. His own work, however, is with the instruments of his laboratory, and his use of books is a supplementary matter.

A writer on economics, on the other hand, like the physicist, must know the results of others labors as recorded in books, but unlike him, books also form the main field of his investigation, for the facts which he seeks are for the most part to be found in print.

Scientists, who thus find the material of their studies in nature, and refer to books mainly for the records of previous discovery, often fail to recognize the fact that to the students of history, literature, philology, economics, etc. — to the students, that is to say, of human expression and accomplishment— books are themselves the very material of their study, and are not merely the record of what others have discovered before them (like the chemical journals and the transactions of scientific societies).

Books are, with architecture, sculpture, and painting the only tangible evidence of what men have been, and how they lived and expressed themselves. For the students of these subjects, the library is itself their laboratory and museum[*], and should be used in the same way that laboratories and museums are used by the scientists. Its resources should be as conveniently and systematically arranged as are the contents of the scientist’s workrooms. A museum that stored its birds, its insects, its fishes, and its reptiles packed indiscriminately together because they would thus occupy less room, or that expected an inquirer to know in advance on which specimens he would find a particular kind of parasite growing, would be as reasonably administered as a library in which a reader, seeking to trace out some special phenomenon in literary or social history, should be expected to know in advance in precisely what volumes he would find the evidence he sought.

Lane was Librarian of Harvard and was responding to Harvard President Charles W. Eliot’s suggestion that little-used library books be moved to a separate facility, to be built on less expensive land, where they could be shelved more densely–but where they could not be browsed directly. Readers would have to page these books at one of the central libraries; ideally, the books would then be delivered the following day.

As described in Kenneth Brough’s Scholar’s Workshop (1953), a study of the development of academic library services from the late 19th century to the early 1950s, Eliot’s plan sounds quite similar to what many academic libraries do today with their off-site and/or high density storage facilities. Eliot even advocated developing partnerships with other libraries to coordinate and share book storage; these sound quite a bit like the consortial arrangements that groups of libraries have developed in today’s world.

At the time, however, Eliot’s proposal was not adopted.** Lane undertook a survey of researchers and came to the conclusion that direct access to books was integral to certain fields of scholarship and needed to be preserved. He acknowledged, however, that other types of research would not be significantly affected by the proposed changes:

(again, I have broken this up for readability–this is part of one paragraph in the original)

A comparison of the above instances with the ordinary requests for advice and assistance constantly made at all library reference desks shows that there are two widely different ways of using a library. On the one hand, a man who desires to inform himself about some period or subject and is content to accept what some competent writer has published, consults one or two standard books on the subjects; these naturally suggest others and he follows them up if so disposed. For reading of this kind, access to a large collection is unimportant and may even be discouraging, and the elaborate equipment of a great reference library is quite unnecessary.

On the other hand, a man who undertakes to follow out some new line of inquiry, to establish relations between certain facts not hitherto studied in connection, and to draw fresh conclusions from what he learns, sets about his work in a very different way. So does one who attempts to collect from a wide range of sources, scattered and fragmentary references hitherto unnoticed on some specific subject, that he may thus add to the general sum of knowledge in regard to it. Nearly all the instances cited above are of this kind.

For such work, direct personal access to a well classified and abundant collection of books is the first requisite. To be deprived of it means at the very least a serious and unnecessary waste of time, and in many cases it altogether prevents the undertaking of the inquiry.

In fact, this liberty of access is itself of such primary importance that the question of a division of the library into books much used and books little used becomes a secondary question to be decided solely on the ground of practical convenience. A library may well find it convenient to place less used subjects, or the less used books on popular subjects, in a more distant part of the building, or even, when pressed by want of room, in a separate building, but it cannot afford to store them in such a way that scholars cannot themselves look them over and find them in an order convenient for such examination.

Writing at a time when just about the only way to read a book was to actually have it in front of you, Lane ultimately sided with a policy of open stacks, though he left the door open for building remote, but still browseable, facilities for little-used books. For the fields of research he identified as being heavily based on the types of sources found in libraries, some kind of direct access was considered essential.

Things have obviously changed quite a bit since Lane and Eliot’s time. I think it is still true that there are some disciplines that rely heavily on the kinds of materials one finds in libraries, though to be clear, I should point out that such sources can be found in lots of other places, such as archives or museums or, for that matter, in the possession of any institution, group, or individual that creates or collects (and also preserves).*** Browsing strategies remain important to these fields, but I think it’s a mistake to consider browsing synonymous with stack browsing.

Collections have grown past the point – indeed, they probably passed it years ago – where even a large research library could still provide open stacks for nearly everything it owns. Not just because of the expense and the extent of space needed, but also because increasingly materials are being created and stored in formats that simply cannot be browsed “physically” because they cannot be read directly by people: digital formats, of course, but also other forms of media (film, video, audio tape, and so on).

Moreover, there are now viable ways to gain access to the contents of books (and other sources) without actually having to hold the physical copies. You can browse in a browser. And even when you can’t get full-text, search engines, databases, and yes, even the much-maligned, often frustrating, but still valuable online library catalog can usually get you a lot farther than the old card catalog would. There are more ways of providing an “order convenient for…examination” than shelf arrangement.

Now, I don’t want to sound too technologically triumphant here. Is everything digitized? Of course not. Are there still barriers to digitizing and providing convenient electronic access to much of the material on the shelves of academic libraries? Yes.  Can stack browsing still be a useful way of finding new connections you might not otherwise have come across? Yes to that too. Does the physical object retain its importance? Certainly. We are living in a hybrid world, one that’s likely to last for quite a while.

__________

*Given the terms of the analogy – naturalists and specimens – Lane was probably thinking of the museum here as a site of active research, not as an institution with mostly static collections. I don’t think this is a case of the library as “book museum” – although some of the other arguments Lane makes in the paper could be pushed in that direction.

**For a full discussion of the debate, see Brough, Scholar’s Workshop, 124-134. Lane wasn’t alone: the 1903 American Library Association conference hosted a panel – or what we’d now call a panel – on “The Treatment of Books According to the Amount of Their Use.” I found Lane’s paper, which appeared in the conference proceedings, by following a footnote in Brough.

***For a recent analysis of library- and record-based research, see Andrew Abbott’s papers here. It’s also worth noting that “conventional reading” is now only one of the ways to analyze such materials. There are also, to name just two broad categories, statistical and digital methods.

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reprintpost

26 January 2010

I see via Henry at Crooked Timber that Nicholar Carr is coming out with a book expanding on his essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, which appeared in the Atlantic in 2008. Or so I’ve heard. I read the essay on the Atlantic website and I assume, but have not verified, that it was printed within the non-searchable archaic form of a paper magazine.

[Distracted aside: didn’t that used to be called the Atlantic Monthly? Shouldn’t it now be called the Atlantic Immediately?]

Having been called a digital native recently, I’m not quite sure what a book is or what it means to wait for publication, but I did write up a long post in 2008 responding to Carr’s original essay. This blog, like all blogs, needs content now now now and I’m busier this term than I thought I’d be, so I’m reposting that old post below.

My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.

I read this

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

and thought that I’ve been having the same experience for a few years now, except that when I lose a thread while reading a book or article online and look for something else, that something else is more text in another tab or window. Then I remembered that I’ve always had to put energy into concentrating on what I’m reading, even if I find it interesting. The only exceptions are things I find engrossing – even if I don’t find them interesting. What makes something engross me? I don’t exactly know. I’d say “good writing” but that’s hardly a satisfying explanation.

I read this

Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after.

and thought that the seeming thinness of research aimed mainly at gathering “telltale fact”s or “pithy quote”s resides more in its goals than in its methods.

I read this

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”

and the sentiments felt familiar. I may have always had to work to keep focused on long writing, but I used to finish books at a much higher rate. Outside of required readings, I used to start multiple books at once until I found one that held my interest until I finished it, at which point I re-started the process. Now it seems like I’m always beginning books.

I read this

“I can’t read War and Peace anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”

and thought, who can read War and Peace in any sort of “normal” way at all? I read it in bunches over a period of about a month, quickly at first when I was into it, more slowly when I began to get frustrated with the plot about halfway through, lethargically as I approached the end, determinedly as I read the final few hundred pages in one sitting, knowing that if I put it down I was in danger of never picking it up again. I reflected that reading fiction has always been a different experience with me than reading non-fiction. I can’t skim fiction. I might read blog posts quickly, but I don’t skim them unless I’m deciding whether or not to then read them.

I read this

As part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.

and wondered if there was also evidence that they never went back and actually read those articles. I wondered if the authors considered that people may be exhibiting “a form of skimming activity” because they were skimming to see which of their search results were useful, if any. Or because they were curious about something they found but weren’t looking for. I wondered if browsing nearby books in the stacks is “a form of skimming activity.” I wondered if this says something about how people search as well as about how people read.

I read this

“We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

and tried to remember where I saw Wolf’s work discussed recently. I resisted searching for it right then and there. [I later looked and found it: Caleb Crain’s essay “Twilight of the Books” on the future of reading.]

I read this

Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

and thought, that may be true, but doesn’t that mean we have the flexibility to re-wire if we change our behavior? So to the extent that there’s a change taking place, it might not be a permanent one.

I read this

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

and thought of Francis Parkman, who needed a special tool to help him hand-write along straight lines as his vision worsened.

I read this

In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”

and thought that maybe if I finish reading Mumford’s two best known Cities books, I might read some of his other work. I remembered that I decided not to get a used copy of Technics and Civilization recently because I wasn’t sure how it stood in relation to his other work – and, more importantly, because it was kind of heavy and I didn’t want to carry it when I moved.

I read this

When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image.

and was reminded of Marx writing that the bourgeoisie creates the world in its own image.

I read the rest of that paragraph

It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.

and thought: you can change a lot of those settings, you know.

I read this

The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. When, in March of this year, The New York Times decided to devote the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts, its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts” would give harried readers a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “less efficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.

and wondered if the author thought these were all bad developments. More ads and shorter articles certainly don’t seem like a positive step, but abstracts and snippets, done well, could be quite helpful. Assuming abstracts aren’t all that people ever read.

I read this

Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”

Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California—the Googleplex—is the Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does. Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data it collects through its search engine and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.

The company has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine,” which it defines as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.

and had a few questions:

  1. What happened to labor? Is Google’s workforce organized along Taylorized lines? Reports suggest that the answer is “no,” at least for some subset of employees.
  2. How can the claim that the internet is encouraging Taylor-like efficiency be reconciled with an article premised on distraction and lack of concentration? It sounds like it is the search engine itself that’s being Taylorized.

I read this

“The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

and thought it sounded like marketing.

I read this

The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

and thought it was a good point. I wondered if it would have been better to build the article around this observation rather than around reading. Page layouts, column widths, displaying articles on one or on multiple pages, print versions, linking within the same site or set of sites – all of these things affect the way we read and are affected by the way we read (since site designers have to try to grab and hold our attention). The internet is not just some undifferentiated entity known as “the internet”; search engines don’t just pull up “the best” or “the most efficient” results at the top. There is a sense in which technology “uses” us, sure, but that shouldn’t obscure the ways technology mediates the way people interact with or act upon each other. That’s one of the reasons we use the word “media” right? (Or is that a false etymology?)

I read this

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

and thought that what Plato and the article both leave out is the unreliability of memory and the ability to check it against a documentary record (which itself isn’t always reliable).

I read this

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds.

and thought of Ann Blair’s article about Early Modern information overload, which you can find summarized here and here (the latter link points to an ungated version on this page).

I read this

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

and was reminded, despite my skepticism about much of the article, how much I too value sustained reading. But having read some books online in the past two years, I don’t know that it has to be print-based.

I finished reading the article. I tracked down some links and planned to post on it in a day or two. I read some other things online. I turned off the computer and began reading this book, which I’ve been meaning to read since I mentioned it months ago. It could be years before I finish it.

[This entry was originally posted on Sunday, June 15th, 2008 at 12:19 pm]


screen time

16 January 2010

I’m used to universities having a “main” library but I can’t tell which library here would be it. The two largest branches have people’s names attached to them. One is a “learning centre” while the other is a “library.” You don’t seen any books when you enter them.

The learning centre has classrooms and reading rooms (which are nearly indistinguishable architecturally from the classrooms, and people read in the classrooms when there’s no class in session) and a cafe, along with offices and a lecture room. The open spaces – the central common area on each floor, the hallways – have couches and soft chairs, and tables with hard chairs. These areas don’t have silence rules and they tend to fill up with people and their schoolbooks and laptops and food; often there are people sitting on the floor. The effect is to make the open areas seem like waiting areas, only there’s nothing to wait for.

Off to the side on a couple of the floors are book stacks, and down in the basement is the special collections and the university archives. There’s also a closed stack book storage area that’s not really stacks as we know them: this is the automated book storage. You go online and if the catalog shows the book you want is there, you put in a request and in about ten minutes it arrives at the circulation desk. This is great from a storage point of view but makes casual browsing a bit more difficult as you can see nearby titles online if you consciously look for them in the catalog, but they won’t catch your eye accidentally and you won’t be able to flip through them without putting in requests.

I spend more time in the “library” library. The two big libraries are distinguished by subject, and most of the humanities and social sciences, and most of the archives and library books are there. You might not see books right at the entrance but every floor has stacks (the entry floor has course reserves hidden behind the circulation desk) and the lower levels have larger underground storage and study areas. The call numbers are distributed such that the archives books are almost all in the basement (CD-) and the library books are almost all on the upper floor (Z-).

There are some good views from the upper floors but the carrel space is limited, and having wandered and failed to find a free space a few times last term, I decided that during daytime hours it’s easier to go straight to the basement to find a place to read. Later in the evening, if I’m still there, I might go upstairs.

I like these traditional study spaces. Very few people walk by and those who do are quietly browsing, there’s very little talking (except in the reference area but I go there only if I have need of reference), and the stacks are right nearby. But I find I rarely read books or print when I’m there.

Most of my course reading is article based (and if they’re not articles, they’re often book chapters), and most of the articles are online. When I was last in grad school this was true of many articles then too, but I usually either tracked down the print versions or printed them out myself. But sometime in the last couple of years I crossed a point where I became quite comfortable reading these things online.

Sometimes I’ll pull out the print version if I didn’t bring my laptop with me or if I want to read with no distractions, but I found that I no longer feel like reading online is another kind of reading. I’ve even found that I’m slowly adjusting to take notes on the screen rather than on note cards; this is probably helped by the fact that I was never much of a note-taker before, and my most useful notes have always been written summaries/reviews/responses. Or ephemera to guide my reading that I never looked up again.

I never made a conscious effort to effect this shift in habit. It makes me wonder if others have noticed the same thing and if all the talk about needing new types of screens, none of which I’ve used, to make electronic reading more comfortable will be overtaken by a change not so much in screens but in what is thought to be comfortable. In the meantime, one of my resolutions (not really a new year’s one), which is slowly gaining momentum, is to read more print – that is, more books – again.


the shadow of money

14 May 2009
light-money

This was one of the illustrations accompanying Brandeis' article, "What Publicity Can Do," as it originally appeared in the December 20, 1913 edition of Harper's Weekly. The article was later reprinted as a chapter in Other People's Money.


recommended daily allowance

14 May 2009

This Bill Moyers interview with Simon Johnson and Michael Perino about the Pecora Commission and its relevance for today is very very good, and anyone interested in the financial crisis who also has the slightest bit of interest in history should check it out. (A transcript is helpfully provided for those who don’t want to sit through an hour.)

At one point Johnson and Perino got into a bit of a disagreement over whether financial products should be labled like food products:

SIMON JOHNSON: Let me put it this way, Bill, 150 years ago, I could have stood outside your studio on the street of New York and sold anything in a bottle and called it a medicine, okay? Quack medicine is what it was called. And it could have been, you know, good for you or bad offer you or it could have killed you. And it would– I could have done it. I would have done it, right? People did it.

Now that’s illegal. You go to prison. There are serious criminal penalties for selling things that you claim are medicine that are– that are not medicine. And obviously we argue even about very fine distinctions of how good is this for you under what circumstances? The same transformation will take place, I am sure, over the next 150 years for financial products. I’d like to bring it forward a little bit and have it happen in the next couple of years.

MICHAEL PERINO: I’m not–

SIMON JOHNSON: I think that change of view of, you know, to what extent can the consumer decide for himself or herself, to what extent do you need protection, guidance, very strong labels on products? I think that we’ve changed many ways we think about things as we modernized our economy looking over the past century. But the financial products, not so much.

MICHAEL PERINO: If you look back at the history, the first securities regulations were not federal regulation but state regulation. They were called the “blue sky laws.” And the “blue sky laws” were exactly the model you’re talking about. The “blue sky laws” were what were called merit regulation. And the idea behind merit regulation is that there will be a state regulator who will look at the quality of these securities and will determine whether they are appropriate or not to sell to investors in that state.

It’s a model that federal securities regulation rejected because the view was, you know, do we really want to be in a position where some bureaucrat is deciding what’s an appropriate risk for an investor to take? Or are we better off with the progressive model, a model that Brandeis wrote about in his famous book called “Other People’s Money” where he says, No, we don’t need to be regulating the substance of this. What we need to rely on, in his phrase, is sunlight, electric light, he says, is the best policeman.

It’s too bad that Johnson didn’t point out that Perino, who’s doing a biography of Pecora and presumably has gotten into the relevant history – Other People’s Money was reprinted around the time of the Pecora hearings and first came out in 1913-4 following a similar, but less famous, set of hearings on banking conducted by the Pujo Committee in 1912 – apparently missed the part later in the same chapter that the “sunlight” quote is drawn from where Brandeis wrote (under “Publicity as a Remedy”):

Now the law should not undertake (except incidentally in connection with railroads and public-service corporations) to fix bankers’ profits. And it should not seek to prevent investors from making bad bargains. But it is now recognized in the simplest merchandising, that there should be full disclosures. The archaic doctrine of caveat emptor is vanishing. The law has begun to require publicity in aid of fair dealing. The Federal Pure Food Law does not guarantee quality or prices; but it helps the buyer to judge of quality by requiring disclosure of ingredients. Among the most important facts to be learned for determining the real value of a security is the amount of water it contains. And any excessive amount paid to the banker for marketing a security is water. Require a full disclosure to the investor of the amount of commissions and profits paid; and not only will investors be put on their guard, but bankers’ compensation will tend to adjust itself automatically to what is fair and reasonable. Excessive commissions—this form of unjustly acquired wealth—will in large part cease.

In other words, the clock has already been running for nearly a century on the effort to label financial products. The question isn’t whether we’ll get it in a few years or in a century; it’s whether it will take another century.


Emerson comments on the newspaper

6 April 2009

(From “The Times” in English Traits)

On influence:

The most conspicuous result of this talent is the “Times” newspaper. No power in England is more felt, and more feared, or more obeyed. What you read in the morning in that journal, you shall hear in the evening in all society. It has ears everywhere, and its information is earliest, completest, and surest. It has risen, year by year, and victory by victory, to its present authority. I asked one of its old contributors, whether it had once been abler than it is now? “Never,” he said; “these are its palmiest days.” It has shown those qualities which are dear to Englishmen, unflinching adherence to its objects, prodigal intellectual ability, and a towering assurance, backed by the perfect organization in its printing-house, and its world-wide network of correspondence and reports. It has its own history and famous trophies. In 1820, it adopted the cause of Queen Caroline, and carried it against the king. It adopted a poor-law system, and almost alone lifted it through. When Lord Brougham was in power, it decided against him, and pulled him down. It declared war against Ireland, and conquered it. It adopted the League against the Corn Laws, and, when Cobden had begun to despair, it announced his triumph. It denounced and discredited the French Republic of 1848, and checked every sympathy with it in England, until it had enrolled 200,000 special constables to watch the Chartists, and make them ridiculous on the 10th April. It first denounced and then adopted the new French Empire, and urged the French Alliance and its results. It has entered into each municipal, literary, and social question, almost with a controlling voice. It has done bold and seasonable service in exposing frauds which threatened the commercial community. Meantime, it attacks its rivals by perfecting its printing machinery, and will drive them out of circulation: for the only limit to the circulation of the “Times” is the impossibility of printing copies fast enough; since a daily paper can only be new and seasonable for a few hours. It will kill all but that paper which is diametrically in opposition; since many papers, first and last, have lived by their attacks on the leading journal.

On the production of authority:

The “Times” never disapproves of what itself has said, or cripples itself by apology for the absence of the editor, or the indiscretion of him who held the pen. It speaks out bluff and bold, and sticks to what it says. It draws from any number of learned and skilful contributors; but a more learned and skilful person supervises, corrects, and coordinates. Of this closet, the secret does not transpire. No writer is suffered to claim the authorship of any paper; everything good, from whatever quarter, comes out editorially; and thus, by making the paper everything, and those who write it nothing, the character and the awe of the journal gain. …

Was never such arrogancy as the tone of this paper. Every slip of an Oxonian or Cantabrigian who writes his first leader, assumes that we subdued the earth before we sat down to write this particular “Times.” One would think, the world was on its knees to the “Times” Office for its daily breakfast. But this arrogance is calculated. Who would care for it if it “surmised,” or “dared to confess,” or “ventured to predict,” &c. No; it is so, and so it shall be.

On the nature of its liberal views:

The morality and patriotism of the “Times” claims only to be representative, and by no means ideal. It gives the argument, not of the majority, but of the commanding class. Its editors know better than to defend Russia, or Austria, or English vested rights, on abstract grounds. But they give a voice to the class who, at the moment, take the lead; and they have an instinct for finding where the power now lies, which is eternally shifting its banks. Sympathizing with and speaking for the class that rules the hour, yet being apprised of every ground-swell, every Chartist resolution, every Church squabble, every strike in the mills, they detect the first tremblings of change. They watch the hard and bitter struggles of the authors of each liberal movement, year by year,—watching them only to taunt and obstruct them,—until, at last, when they see that these have established their fact, that power is on the point of passing to them,—they strike in, with the voice of a monarch, astonish those whom they succor, as much as those whom they desert, and make victory sure. Of course, the aspirants see that the “Times” is one of the goods of fortune, not to be won but by winning their cause.

On the potential of an engaged journalism:

The “Times,” like every important institution, shows the way to a better. It is a living index of the colossal British power. Its existence honors the people who dare to print all they know, dare to know all the facts, and do not wish to be flattered by hiding the extent of the public disaster. There is always safety in valor. I wish I could add that this journal aspired to deserve the power it wields, by guidance of the public sentiment to the right. It is usually pretended, in Parliament and elsewhere, that the English press has a high tone,—which it has not. It has an imperial tone as of a powerful and independent nation. But as with other empires, its tone is prone to be official, and even officinal. The “Times” shares all the limitations of the governing classes, and wishes never to be in a minority. If only it dared to cleave to the right, to show the right to be the only expedient, and feed its batteries from the central heart of humanity, it might not have so many men of rank among its contributors, but genius would be its cordial and invincible ally; it might now and then bear the brunt of formidable combinations, but no journal is ruined by wise courage. It would be the natural leader of British reform; its proud function, that of being the voice of Europe, the defender of the exile and patriot against despots, would be more effectually discharged; it would have the authority which is claimed for that dream of good men not yet come to pass, an International Congress; and the least of its victories would be to give to England a new millennium of beneficent power.